Vietnam's elephants succumb to overwork, poaching

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Elephants in a street parade held during this year's annual coffee festival in the Central Highlands town of Buon Ma Thuot on March 9. Overworked, underfed and uncared for, domesticated elephants in Vietnam are dying in increasing numbers. 

A group of students from the Ho Chi Minh City College of Culture and Arts recently had a frightening experience in Dak Lak Province when a tamed elephant at a tourist spot suddenly rushed at them.

The pachyderm, Y Mol, only backed off after its mahout, Y Suong, jabbed it repeatedly on the head with a spur.

But Suong said the big animal was not attacking the students.

"She was just hungry. She wanted to grab some sugarcane the students were teasing her with instead of feeding her right away." (They were swinging the sugarcane in order to get the elephant to swing her head and trunk accordingly.)

Y Mol, who was captured and tamed nearly 40 years ago, is emaciated and hungry all the time. It belongs to the September 2 Tourism Company in Dak Lak, and carries tourists around.

Virtually all the domesticated elephants in the province are suffering the same plight as Y Mol, dying a slow death as they are overworked, starved and provided with no healthcare.

Dak Lak is famous for its tradition of capturing and taming elephants though this has been banned since 1985.

The number of tamed elephants in Dak Lak has plummeted from 502 in 1990 to around 50 now.

Slogging on empty stomach

Like many other elephants in Dak Lak, Y Mol works through the day, carrying four or five tourists per trip for several kilometers by road and crossing the Se Re Pok River.

For this drudgery, they get just a few sticks of sugarcane or a banana tree.

Y The K'nul, a mahout at the Spa Ban Don Eco Tourism Area, said after their working day is over, the elephants are taken to the forest and tied to a tree with a 50-meter chain for grazing.

Early morning the following day, the mahouts take them for a bath before taking them back to the tourist area.

On April 9, a 63-year-old female elephant named Buon Nhang, belonging to a local resident, died of overwork and lack of food.

On February 11 another animal, H'plo, a 35-year-old female, died under similar circumstances. It had been working at the Ban Don Tourism Center in Yok Don National Park.

Y Suong, Y Mol's mahout, said female elephants breed between 15 and 45 years.

But at 43, Y Mol has never had a calf because the owners had not allowed her to mate.

Of the 50 or so domesticated elephants in Dak Lak, 15 belong to tourism companies and the rest are owned by individuals.

They are chained in the forest and not allowed to forage for food while there is no veterinary care.

Hoang Van Xuan, deputy director of Yok Don National Park, said the park has four tamed elephants to serve tourists.

"We hire local mahouts and pay them good salaries, but they do not love the animals like people love animals they own."

He said forests in the province are deteriorating and there is not enough food for the elephants. Usually, captive elephants are fed by the owners with large quantities of leaves, vegetables and fruits, but in Dak Lak, they are given meager portions during the working day and let to graze, tethered, at night.

Elephants in the wild, depending on the species, consume between 660 pounds and 330 pounds of food a day, according to the online biology dictionary, and consume almost 200 liters of water.

When the elephants fall sick, owners in Dak Lak let them loose in the forest to hunt for herbs with which they are believed to treat themselves.

However, Xuan said, the food tamed elephants get is not enough and it is almost impossible for the animals to search for herbs and regain their strength.

"It is easy to understand why the elephants are dying one by one."

A study by the Tay Nguyen University in 2011 found that domesticated elephants were dying due to overwork, lack of rest, insufficient food, attacks by humans for ivory and tail hair, and lack of veterinary care.

In the past, owners let tamed elephants wander in the forest and only brought them back to the village when they were needed for a particular work or event, the report said.

But with the elephants being used mainly for commercial purposes, with a focus on tourism and festivals, they were being over-exploited and neglected at the same time.

"If there is no successful elephant conservation, the "˜elephant legend' in Dak Lak and Vietnam's Central Highlands will disappear," Cao Thi Ly, the study's author, had warned.

The study estimated that the number of wild elephants in the country had declined to between 83 and 110 individuals.

Earlier this month, a four-ton wild elephant was found dead in a forest in Quang Binh Province with its head, legs, and skin removed.

Locals said the forest had been home to two adult elephants, a male and a female, but the male had been poached for it tusks two years ago.

Richard Thomas, a spokesman for the international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, said the main threats to Asian elephants are habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, and that the species is facing a "very real threat of extinction" in Vietnam.

"For domesticated elephants, a robust registration system should be put in place to make clear how many there are in captivity. This should be combined with regular health checks and reports on how the animals are faring," Thomas said.

Vain efforts

Last year Dak Lak authorities set up an elephant conservation center and announced several policies to help elephant owners.

Pham Van Lang, deputy director of the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center, said the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is seeking the government's approval for a plan to create protected forests and provide veterinary care for tamed elephants.

"We are waiting for approval. Meanwhile, elephants at tourism companies continue to die of overwork," the Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper quoted him as saying.

Another policy announced in 2012, to give cash awards to owners and mahouts of elephants that give birth, has also proved unfruitful.

The owner of a female elephant that gives birth will get VND400 million (US$19,100) and its mahout, VND168 million.

The mahout of a bull that impregnates a female will receive VND6 million.

But the prizes have yet to be claimed.

The mahouts fear most tamed elephants cannot reproduce because they are overworked and underfed.

Elephant protection measures in Vietnam have been too few and far between to have any impact, experts say.

Thomas of TRAFFIC said: "There is hope for Vietnam's elephants currently - but it will take urgent and focused conservation action in order to protect the remaining fragile populations, and ultimately introduce a mechanism by which remnant populations can be reunited once again to create an elephant-friendly and rich biologically diverse landscape.

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"It was a national tragedy when Vietnam lost its last rhino; one hopes the lesson learned from that catastrophe has been taken onboard and the same fate will not befall the country's Asian elephants."

By Vietweek Staff, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the April 19 issue of our print edition, Vietweek) 

* Khanh An contributed to this report

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